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Oh Susanna - The Triste Interview
|Oh Susanna is the stage name for Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider. Her development from librarian to purveyor of country-noir murder ballads, which featured heavily on her debut EP and the follow-up album "Johnstown", would hardly count as a model career progression - but, luckily, her talents were sufficiently self-evident as to be recognised. Later albums, "Sleepy Little Sailor" and "Oh Susanna" (2003), saw a development of her style with less troubled subject matter and more orthodox country-soul elements appearing. Triste caught up with Oh Susanna in Newcastle on a solo tour early in 2001.
Triste: You come originally from Vancouver. Was there a strong musical tradition in your family?
Oh Susanna: They all sing and all love music and have lots of records and can't imagine life without music at all.
Triste: From what I've heard about you, it almost appears they were listening to Folkways records while you were upstairs in your bedroom in front of your mirror with a hairbrush miming along to David Bowie. Is this true and what was their reaction?
Oh Susanna: My parents were mostly into jazz, but also singers too - Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and that kind of thing, but they also had the odd Beatles record too. My aunt and uncle were the ones who were more into the Folkways records and they had all these Sing Out! magazines in their basement. And at school we'd learn those folk songs as part of the school curriculum.
Triste: But didn't that destroy it for you - being forced to listen to songs at school as a part of the curriculum?
Oh Susanna: The music programme was just a bunch of kids sitting at the feet of the teacher while the teacher sang and you sang along. It wasn't like very difficult music programmes like music appreciation.
Triste: I realise that, but generally kids will rebel against things they are forced to do. When did you actually start playing yourself?
Oh Susanna: Well I started to play the guitar in about 1989 and I started to take lessons from a jazz player, but I really wanted to see what musicians were like. I just wanted to be around a musician. Looking back on it now I wanted to be around someone who played music because I wanted to do that too, although I couldn't admit that to myself then. So I had to go and take these hour long lessons to see what this woman was thinking about and she taught me a lot about how to listen to songs and how to find out how to play them.
Triste: So, it was more than just hanging with musicians, you always intended finding out how to become one?
Oh Susanna: It wasn't really about having a plan, it was more about expressing myself musically, but not knowing how to do that or get into that. And so I took guitar lessons, because I had friends, mostly men, who told me I should play guitar and it would free me. They just saw that I had musical talent, because I was singing along with them when they were playing, and they felt that I should too. So I got a guitar and started to take lessons, but I didn't practise very much and I didn't really learn in a way that was methodical. I don't think of myself as a guitar player and I never got proficient, it was really just a matter of expressing myself musically and that's really what it was. I didn't say to myself that I wasn't that serious about guitar, its just that in retrospect I realise that was what I was trying to do.
Triste: It seems that in your early life you were hedging your bets about which way to turn and it wasn't always obvious that music would be your main focus.
Oh Susanna: At school I didn't really want to specialise in anything because I just wanted to have general education in liberal arts and that's just what I did. It was like a history, philosophy, literature, art history degree. So of course when I was finished, even though I'd enjoyed being in school, I wanted to take a break from it and figure out what else can I do. Which is a weird thing, cos you go through this big transition from school, were you're rewarded for being bright and expressing yourself and then I got out into the world and was mostly service jobs and it was like don't express yourself at all. So you go through this weird kind of fall where you realise that, of course, University or academic life is not ideal, but it has certain things which are stimulating and learning is valued, whereas in the things I was doing it wasn't high on peoples priorities to foster creativity and individuality. So I started to back to school again, but at the same time I had recorded these songs and that recording got into the hands of a DJ in Los Angeles and he helped me get in a music festival and it just kind of took off from there. It was really weird because I didn't really know anything about the music business and you have to find out really fast. Which was great, I'm glad for that, cos it kicked my ass and I don't know if I would have done it as fast or embraced it as much as I had too. But it was very interesting to have this thing suddenly happen, which I'd wanted to happen, but happen in a really strange flukey kind of way.
Triste: If that cassette hadn't been picked up do you think you'd have focussed on music?
Oh Susanna: I think I would have wanted to but I wouldn't have known what that meant, cos I hadn't been in bands, which a lot of teenage boys do. They kind of hack around and have bands and get gigs. I knew lots of people who did that. I was too shy to do that and it was very male dominated and it was only later on that I got the courage to actually sing in front of people and try and write songs and have certain figures in my life really pushing me to do it.
Triste: Where did you first perform on stage? Was it at some kind of open mic session?
Oh Susanna: Yeh, well, it wasn't really an open mic, but at the college where I was going to, they had this cabaret night where people put on skits or whatever they wanted to do. They'd tell jokes or whatever. So I decided that I wanted to sing three songs or so and I got a friend to play guitar with me - I played a little bit of guitar, but I could barely do it, I was too nervous. The people in my class went crazy for it, which was amazing, and they thought I'd been doing it all the time, but I had only been doing it at home with the people I knew.
Triste: So the positive feedback encouraged you to carry on and push you further.
Oh Susanna: Yes that's right.
Triste: You used a stage name, Oh Susanna, from quite a way back - something like 1995. Why didn't you use Suzie Ungerleider? What's wrong with it? Was it the prospect of filling up the whole billboard - like Robert Zimmerman - with your name?
Oh Susanna: Exactly. (laughs) Well, there's a number of reasons - one is that. (laughs) Ungerleider - that's 11 letters - right? Actually it's always made sense to me that if you're going to be a performer that you have a name or a persona; it's about exploring character. It's about entering a different world. It's not about me, as in 'me' in my daily life, it's about 'me' who goes into a some other realm while I'm on stage through the music. That's why I wanted to use another name because it's not about me, it's about someone else.
Triste: Do you feel that performing through this character is like using some kind of shamanic mask?
Oh Susanna: It is someone else or it is more deeply me than it is me in my real life. When people put on a costume they are liberated to do things they are not able to do. In a way they are able to express things which are deeply within them, but which they can't always talk about or say. At school in drama class you play these trust games which are to break down the persona you use every day, so that you can liberate something else so you can unite with people in another way, than you normally would - which I think the music does and the idea of having Oh Susanna facilitates that.
Triste: It's interesting, as there's a lot of darkness in your music, which you seem to be exploring in this character. Is there an element of that? Or is it the real you?
Oh Susanna: Yes I think it is partly. You can't do those things really. I mean Steve Earle talks about how OJ should just have written a song about killing Nicole. It's that thing of being able to talk about things that are there, but you can't always do it - if you're working in a bank for example. Because the goal of working in a bank is different - it's serving the bank or your accumulation of wealth - that's your goal there, it's not about personal expression.
Triste: In a sense it's more of a mask working in a bank than it is when you perform on stage.
Oh Susanna: Yes. I'm not really advocating necessarily that people in a bank should go and express their individuality while working there. It's this thing of where can you express yourself honestly and when is it appropriate? I don't know the answer to that, but I think when you're able to do something artistic it isn't necessarily about being yourself. It's like when you see a play or a movie, you know it's a fiction, but you believe it. Or you listen to a song and it stirs up emotions and feelings that feel more true than when you're waiting for the bus. So you're distilling an experience so that people can plug into it.
Triste: It all sounds very Jungian.
Oh Susanna: I haven't read a lot of Jung, but I do think it has to do with the many masks and layers that people put on and sometimes they want you to help them do that. But that wasn't necessarily my goal when I started in music, it was more about me wanting to put myself in a situation where I could sing and say things that I wanted to say.
Triste: Why did you choose Oh Susanna! In particular as a stage name? Was it purely the Stephen Foster reference?
Oh Susanna: Yes, the Stephen Foster reference, but also a friend of mine who I had started to do music with called me that.
Triste: So at this stage of your career you've got yourself a name, you're playing live and you've made a demo tape. How many copies did you run off? Was it really the 50 or so for friends etc?
Oh Susanna: I made more like ten or so copies using home dubbing. To get your stuff duplicated you had to go out way out of the suburbs and there was no way to go out there except by car, and I didn't have a car and it seemed like a long way. I had a tape of this recording and didn't really know what to do with it. I was happy enough to have it in itself. I was just prolonging the trip out to Burnaby, British Columbia, which is about an hour away from Vancouver, and the duplicating place was in a not very pleasant warehouse district - so going there was a chore, so I didn't go. I sent this tape to my sister and she said, "I hope you don't mind, but I've given it to this DJ that I listen to all the time on the radio" and she lives in LA. A couple months later she called me and said "Oh my God! I can't believe it. He's listened to it and he wants to call you". That seemed bizarre. After that he said I want to get you into this music conference and I'm going to see you and talk to you about what you're doing. It was then that I went out into the suburbs to the duplicating plant and made the 50 copies, because I knew I'd need more.
Triste: Were these recorded on a four track or at a demo studio?
Oh Susanna: On an ADAT machine that we rented for the day.
Triste: So this was then cleaned up and used as your first release.
Oh Susanna: Yeh, well not exactly cleaned up - just a few hours of cleaning. Put it in the Mac computer and whatever.
Triste: When did you move to Toronto? Was it after that?
Oh Susanna: I moved to Toronto after that in 1997 in the Fall.
Triste: How does Toronto compare to Vancouver as a town? Is there more of a buzz about the place?
Oh Susanna: There's more live music happening and roots stuff there. It's just a bigger city - it's about twice the size and it's more urban. Vancouver is more into DJs than live music.
Triste: There's the famous Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, isn't there?
Oh Susanna: Yeh, it did close, but it's now reopened. There was a lull in live music there. There was a whole bunch of venues, either they burnt down or they closed. I happened to play in Toronto and it just felt like it was a lot more lively. The city of Toronto has better architecture in terms of the buildings - Vancouver's very ugly architecturally.
Triste: That's a bit harsh, isn't it?
Oh Susanna: There's a lot of really pre-fab kind of feel to Vancouver's buildings, whereas Toronto's a little older - it's not necessarily beautiful in its architecture, but it's got a more solid feeling. Vancouver's quite a new place, at least for Europeans, so it's not concerned with building things that last - it's about transience. Toronto's older, it's a very conservative kind of place - it's a different kind of feel, it's about permanence.
Triste: For your first two records you seem to have a clear, strong style which almost amounts to a modern take on the old Appalachian songs and the murder ballads. Was that a conscious decision?
Oh Susanna: I was obsessed with that music and old blues too. I wanted to create that intensity and play acoustically in this raw kind of way.
Triste: When you made your first "full" album Johnstown. I presume you had a bigger budget and had more time to plan it out. There seems a coherence about the album with a general darkness around the songs. Was that a deliberate choice?
Oh Susanna: No. It's not really about choice a lot of times, but it is about will. You will yourself towards certain things, so that's where you go. It's not like a smorgasbord where you chose these different things. I just gravitate towards something that moves me and I think most people do. Most people who pay attention to what's inside them will work that way. So the music is thematically tied together, because those were the questions I wanted asking at that time. It's just a reflection of the things that go on in my head. It is tied together but it's not a conscious decision to do this.
Triste: There's a certain strand of introspection in Canadian music: there's Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Ron Sexsmith. Is that symptomatic of a certain Canadian mindset or are they just the ones who made it and there other types of music which we don't hear about.
Oh Susanna: Well there's Bryan Adams!
Triste: That's true. (laughs) There's Rush too!
Oh Susanna: They are weird pseudo-intellectuals - strange right-wing political types. But it's easy to select things and see a pattern. But you can do the same thing everywhere. Every country has introspective people writing music.
Triste: Going back to the album. Did you know a lot about the Johnstown flood before you started writing the song? Why did you choose that as a setting?
Oh Susanna: I wanted a town to be a place that people go to mentally and it doesn't have to be Johnstown. I wrote the song "Johnstown" before I knew where it was set.
Triste: But you must have known there was a flood?
Oh Susanna: No. Well I knew afterwards. I had a name for the place and it was going to be called something or other town. I mentioned the flood, but the flood is more about a kind of self-destructive willing on of this divine justice kind of feeling because the person has such remorse that he's waiting to die in the flood. It was a friend of mind who said I was talking about Johnstown because I was talking about the flood. And then I wanted to name that album after that because I had the idea that it would be brown and rusty and lots of mud and earth and that's where the music is on that record.
Triste: The first time I heard about Johnstown and its flood was on the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman" where the chorus mentions, "the band played 'The Night of the Johnstown flood'".
Oh Susanna: That's the thing. I didn't know the Nebraska record too well and my friend said listen to this song and it's talking about the Johnstown flood. So I said, "Thank you very much," and put it in the song.
Triste: Synchronicity! (laughs) I did a little bit of research on it recently and found out that it's a very famous event in the States. Something like 2200 people died in 1889.
Oh Susanna: It was a tidal wave and people could hear the water coming and it had trains and houses and cows in it. I think it was two rivers came together and they were dammed and then the dam broke. It's also political too. Johnstown was a big kind of steel town and the steel barons had set up this hunting and fishing club above the town where they had the beautiful place. Even though they knew it was falling apart, they kind of said "Whatever" and let it fall into neglect and it was the steelworkers in the valley below who suffered. Even though it was also partly a natural disaster as there was a huge storm as well, so there are a lot of elements you can take away from it.
Triste: I presume there's also a biblical resonance in there too with the deluge cleansing and sweeping things away.
Oh Susanna: Yes, that's what I was talking about in that song before I had the actual location.
Triste: How easy do you find it to take on the character of the principal in the song you're singing? How easy is it to get into the character of a male murderer for example?
Oh Susanna: I didn't start out writing that song knowing I was going to write a song about a murder. In fact, at first, I didn't know whether I was going to be the prostitute or the murderer, but I chose to take on the murderer's point of view. Part of it is about self-destruction, so this person acts out and destroys someone else, but it kills his own humanity. You don't hear a lot about women killing at all - they do, but it's not as common, so it made more sense to have the standard film-noir guy in a trench coat and cigarette confessing.
Triste: What about the mechanics of songwriting? Is it spontaneous? Do you sit down and work our chord progressions? Or do you jot down phrases in books?
Oh Susanna: I do all those things. I might be at the piano and something comes up accidentally. Most of the time I think it is accidental where you do a strange variation on something and you like the result. Sometimes I'll sing to myself, either at home or walking around, singing over and over again - producing sounds or words or images and I write those down too.
Triste: Do you ever trial songs live before you actually record them where they develop on stage?
Oh Susanna: Sure. I think I do. Mostly it's before I perform them. I don't really have a method. If I feel like the song is done then I'll try and play it.
Triste: The latest album Sleepy Little Sailor is different again. It's lighter and gentler although there's still a dream like quality about it.
Oh Susanna: I think it came out because you don't know what kind of songs you're going to write. But I didn't want to fall into the trap of writing the same thing again. So I wanted to write in a different way, but I don't know if I thought about how that was going to be. Sometimes things just happen and you have to accept that you do change. In fact maybe that's more it. It's not like I think I must change, it's more accepting I am going to change because that's just how people are - things happen in peoples' lives and they change. Well that is just reflected in the songs.
Triste: I was talking to Freedy Johnston and he said his current album was quite melancholic and he was going to make certain that his next album was going to be a bigger, more rock and roll thing - but that's a conscious decision. There are more aspects to a person. On this record you covered Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams". Any reason?
Oh Susanna: Just because I was so obsessed with that song.
Triste: I see that Greil Marcus raved about your albums. Have you seen that?
Oh Susanna: Yes. Someone emailed me that. I was amazed because I had always known who he was. Some people seem way off and you never think of yourself intersecting with them and also I knew that his writing about music was from a more cultural perspective and that's really important to me. To look at music more culturally rather than as a segment or an isolated thing. I like the way he would make literary references and would talk about music as being some kind of expression of the time, rather than just being about music itself and being separate and in a little bubble. So I was really honoured that he wrote such nice things and that he had even heard the records.
Triste: He said something along the lines of the tradition expressing itself through your voice in "The Bridge" and he supposedly played it non-stop for days. I can see why. Greil Marcus is obsessed with that old weird America, that strange alternative, out-of-kilter place which lies just beneath the surface of the modern USA. He called them "unstable stories" where things are unresolved. But that's surely the right thing to do, you leave gaps in the stories and let your audience fill them in themselves - whether they're right or wrong.
Oh Susanna: In a way it's not really for me to tell you what the songs are about.
Triste: So this record is released on a different label. Was that just for distribution purposes?
Oh Susanna: Yeh, well also, my manager and I couldn't do the work they do and they were getting really excited about it so I said "Okay".
Triste: The first two albums were all your own work. How much was this latest one influenced by the record company?
Oh Susanna: All three of them actually were my own work. This new one they picked up after it was made, so they didn't really have anything to do with its creation.
Triste: So you didn't have any pressure from record company people telling you to make it more radio friendly for example?
Oh Susanna: No, maybe I should lie, because I am the record company basically.
Triste: How have you enjoyed the tour?
Oh Susanna: It's great. It's weird to go so somewhere so far from home and find people who like what you're doing. (laughs)
(Thanks for help from Iain Smith with the interview)